We’ve just passed the mid-way point of the Fall Semester. My writing class students have already done their first assessment task, and certainly put in lots of effort in deciphering the complex journal article and rewriting it into a summary essay.
I then took this opportunity to ask them how they felt about the knowledge about language learnt, overall experience in my class, things they liked and want more in my class, and so on. I did a short survey, and half the class replied. Not bad.
The answers for the open-ended questions lighted up my mood the whole day. I’m not gonna brag about the positive comments, but the fact that they cared about their studies, particularly the content taught and activities done in my writing course, has encouraged me a lot, and motivated me to be my best whenever I’m in the classroom.
Even though there have often been small “bloopers” during the class. They were very tolerant.
Examples, More Examples, A Lot Of Examples
There was one comment — a suggestion to be precise. As expected, the student wanted more examples — not those for illustrating grammar points, but model texts that help them understand the structure and language features of target text types.
I thought about letting them read a couple more essays of the previous cohort, as I already showed them two or three. But the comment means that’s not enough. You know, in one cohort there would just be a few A-grade essays and term papers. As the third-year lecturer, I don’t have a body of texts big enough to give sufficient good examples.
Another issue is that there is not an offline interface user-friendly enough to let student manipulate my student corpus.
Nor would I let them have the corpus because of privacy concerns. I could print out concordance lines for activities, but (i) they still don’t have the full texts, and (ii) they still cannot work with the corpus. This goes against my rationale having the corpus-based teaching.
As I was struggling to find a solution, I remembered it had already been on my Moodle page: Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers (MICUSP).
MICUSP is a 8-million word corpus of A-grade papers from 16 disciplines across 4 tertiary levels of native and non-native English speaking students. It has a simple, straightforward interface, with all the functionalities that can look very daunting to students who don’t want to be linguistic detectives.
The corpus happens to have papers from the fields of Psychology and Sociology, including argumentative essays, which my students are eager to learn about before their second assessment. When you narrow down your search with a filter checklists on the left, the query results are immediately shown on the right.
Using MICUSP for Learning Academic Writing
So the search function is simple. No complex query commands like COCA. Although you cannot sort the words on the left or right of the keyword, or check collocates of a particular part of speech, the example use of keywords are clearly highlighted in the search results.
For example, if I want to check how “important” is used, I will be able to see it collocating with noun groups like “public figures” or “literature”. Then I know the adjective can be used to value people or things positively.
MICUSP also allows for a whole-text view. Each searched text has a hyperlink that you can click, and that opens a new tab to show the full text. You can then look at how the specific writer does her or his writing, such as how s/he organises content in the essay, write concisely through packing ideas in noun groups, and so on.
Still, I recommend that MICUSP users read the exemplary texts with caution. All these essays attained an A, but they aren’t perfect — no one piece of writing is perfect. There are some language choices that I don’t suggest making in academic texts but still exist in these A papers.
One easy example is the use of informal wording, like “kids” instead of “children”. This minor issue is tolerable, for when the teacher focuses on your ideas, your logic and your understanding about the topic and theories.
However, when issues such as overly subjective expressions (the infamous “I think”), inconsistent modality choice, or other organizational problems (e.g. the absence of section headings) should require a careful look based on what has been taught in the class.
After all, MICUSP, just like other resources, is just a tool tapping into the internet database with search functionalities. This kind of tool, however, allows us to access authentic model texts by undergraduates — with search tools that let users understand how academic language is used in these good essays and papers.